Saturday, March 21, 2015


Most girls in Paxton still get whole new outfits for Easter Morning. For weeks before the date, they discuss Easter Dresses and  Easter Shoes and even hats and hairbows.  And most of them in town have the same seamstress---Mrs. Barbee, who has outfitted a couple of generations of little girls, teens, and their mothers in fancy apparel. She’s still constantly in demand, for every piano recital, formal dance, (not many  proms in Paxton,  but somehow someone somewhere in the county is always having a dance---a formal, or a tea-dance, or even just an old-fashioned sock-hop on somebody’s hardwood floors at home) and for every High School social and Wedding-related soiree.

She is a tiny dry bird of a woman, with a wrinkly little face even years ago, and she makes "fancy" clothes from second grade recitals to going-off-to-college wardrobes.   You stand atop the little round step-stool, eye-to-eye with Mrs. B, (or eye to cheek, which on her are dense peachy forests of tiny fuzz, each small sprig bearing its own personal grain of Coty face powder, like whole universes of Who-worlds, safer than Horton on her sweet face. She could retire on the savings she'd have from just the dust down her neckline).

She rolls twelve or so straight-pins round between her lips, with the uncanny knack of sliding just one forward with her tongue, ready for the grab-and-spear of the hem, darts, placket. She never sticks anyone, but most have been scratched by every stiff fabric known to couture, from the days of just-coming-on of the polyester stuff, the nylons and the nets and taffetas. And it is probably the mouthful of pins which causes her to use her own form of wordless language---a series of MMMMM and ummm-ummm and other little noises which can be uttered with tightly-closed lips, and you move whichever way or hold in or hold up whatever she indicates.

You can SMELL the stiffness of those materials, the corners and the edges and the little ravellies that burrow beneath your arms. No hair shirt could tickle like a pinned-together or just-darted bodice with the seams untrimmed.

Mrs. Barbee has one son, a quiet man who almost always wears white; he is a slim, pale, pearly person, quite like the descriptions of Boo Radley, and though slow-moving, can vanish from the living room like smoke when you knock on the door for your fitting. You can see him through the eight panes of the front door, through the haze of the pinched-together white sheer curtain with the rod shirred top and bottom, and sometimes even before you knock, he’ll see your shadow through the door or catch a movement out of the corner of his eye, and get up from his brown recliner and disappear through the dining room arch, not even stopping to turn off the ballgame.  

Mr. Malcolm does electronics, and makes a little bit of their living, but he is a gentle shell of the bright lively young man the older men  describe from their teens. He'd been badly affected by the War, but not actually wounded. He is more within himself than with the world, but he is good to his Mama.

One year, three of the Moms picked the same pattern and the exact material except for color. So three of the eighth-grade girls in stiff cinch-waisted, poufy-skirted peau de soie brocade with Anne Shirley's dream-of-Heaven sleeves appeared at the same tea-dance.  They all took one look at each other as they arrived, and burst out laughing.   And MRS. B HADN’T SAID A WORD.

You always feel gorgeous Mrs. Barbee’s dresses---like there is something ancient in that dry, powdery air that conveys a magical effect of stardust.   There’s no dressing room, no rack of clothes, no expensively-perfumed, luxurious store in the world which can give the totally beautiful feeling of one of those several-fittings, pins-in-the-mouth, turn this way, scratchy-fabric dresses crafted by that artist who was and is Mrs. Barbee. You feel important in her clothes, as well as pretty.

It's like those descriptions by Gallico in Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris---the details of the hand-sewing and all the perfection expected, and the calculation of the cost, down to the last hook for the last eye and the sheets of tissue in the box. A lot of the girls loved that book when it came out in the RDCB collection, and after Mrs. Barbee's, they imagined they could smell Dior's salon, as well---the little steam in the air from the iron ever-ready for pressing seams, and the dry, crisp scent of heavy fabric, with a lingering hint of Coty in the air.

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